Wolves at the Door

By Maximilian Werner

When wildlife biologists or other researchers are out in the field doing science and gathering data, they are trained not to project, emote, or intervene when, say, they see a malnourished fox sitting by a stream or a wolf pack take down and devour an elk calf. In fact, the quality and the value of their work depend on their ability to detach from their personal feelings. Although science is not immune to error, as far as we know it is more reliable than any other kind of knowledge, particularly when it comes to providing us with the information we need in order to make responsible decisions about wildlife and the environment that supports it.

While some scientists may have fudged data in pursuit of their own selfish interests, the bigger problem is what happens to scientific information once it enters the public domain, assuming it gets that far. However hard-won, objective, factual and well-vetted information might be, a significant percentage of the general public is already suspicious of science, especially when it comes to certain issues, such as the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Many people therefore have no incentive to view science through anything other than their own subjective lenses. Clearly science’s usefulness and the life of facts depend on the audience; what is also true is that our treatment of the wolf (and other maligned animals) usually reveals more about our own nature than it reveals about the nature of the wolf.

The questions each one of us needs to answer are what are the facts, what do they mean, and how do they situate us in a physical world? How we answer these questions will not only determine our conduct toward wolves and other forms of nonhuman nature, but also the degree to which we can contribute to a more accurate and complete understanding of ourselves and of the world we inhabit.

We are cultural and biological beings, and it has taken hundreds of thousands of years to get us to our current state. Along the way we have developed various behavioral biases, including our curiosity about and interest in other animals. We share this curiosity with myriad species, even the wolf—a fact that necessarily links us through the process of convergent evolution whereby we, faced with similar challenges, evolved similar traits. That is, we evolved in an environment in which our survival depended on paying attention to other animals. How we interpret animal behavior, including our own, is informed by our cultural filters that impart greater or lesser understanding. Indeed, understanding nature and wildlife often requires a willingness to correct our own deep-seated, long-held, and bad ideas, many of which are themselves irrational byproducts of our evolutionary past.

The recent killing in Beaver, Utah of wolf 914F, aka Echo, by two cougar hunters who claimed they mistook her for a coyote, and the Federal Wildlife Services’ (FWS) decision not to file charges, illustrates not only the hold that evolution has on us when it comes to predators with whom we may compete, but also of how our irrational behavioral biases often lead to poor policy decisions as well—the Division of Natural Resources’ Predator Control Program still offers a $50 bounty for the “lower jaw and either the full pelt or the scalp (with both ears attached) from a coyote.”

Although the FWS was eventually notified of 914f’s killing, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the hunters first contact was “a high school acquaintance who happened to be a state conservation officer.” Only after he arrived were federal wildlife officials notified of the wolf’s death. This unfortunate event underscores the extent of the hunters’ folly and, indeed, the folly of the FWS, for whom a dead wolf, the rule of law, and the designation of endangered species appear to mean less than the hunters’ dubious explanation of the events that took place on December 28, 2014 near the Tushar Mountains of southwestern Utah.

In the absence of a thorough and detailed account of the killing—Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity requested the FWS’s investigation files through the Freedom of Infor­mation Act and “obtained 150 heavily redacted pages”—all we have to go on are the facts as they have been reported in newspapers throughout the West.

This dearth of information may seem to prevent one from determining the plausibility of the hunters’ story, but the few facts we do know seriously undermine their version of what happened, which makes all the more troubling the FWS’s decision not to imprison, fine, nor even revoke the shooter’s hunting license or permit. For not only did the shooter violate federal law, he hadn’t registered for, nor had he completed the training required to participate in Utah’s coyote bounty program. If this sounds like a big deal, it’s not: There are no legal consequences for failing to complete the required training (it just means that a bounty hunter won’t get paid), and nowhere is there any mention of the need to be sure of one’s target.

Although wolves are rarely sighted in Utah, a lone four-year-old male wolf was spotted in late 2014 in the Uintah Moun­tains, and 914f was first spotted almost three months before her December 2014 death. Given the possibility that hunters may encounter a wolf, one wonders why the Division of Natural Resources didn’t provide information that would alert hunters to that possibility as well as to help them distinguish coyotes from wolves. However, the burden of proof does not lie with the DNR; it lies with the hunter, and he has been ridiculed by hunters and non-hunters alike for his ethical failure to positively identify his target before shooting.

In addition to the fact that the “coyote [sic] went behind a sagebrush” and was apparently obscured from view, we know from the July 9, 2015 Tribune article that the shooter used a “.223-caliber hunting rifle with a 10-power scope” to kill the wolf from about 120 yards away. Admit­tedly, 120 yards leaves a lot of room for error, but that 10-power scope would have made the wolf appear as close as 12 yards away. As one incredulous commenter noted in response to the Tribune’s article, at that distance she “could see a tic inside a jackrabbit’s ear.”

Of course 914f’s killer wouldn’t have to see anything as minute as a tic: All he’d have to see is the sizeable radio collar around the wolf’s neck. “The bullet went through the canid’s chest cavity,” so whether 914f was shot in profile or head-on, it’s hard to understand how the hunter wouldn’t have seen the collar through his scope. Equally puzzling is how the hunters failed to notice the considerably different appearance and size of the 914f who, at the time of her killing, weighed 89 pounds. A well-fed adult coyote is lucky to reach 50 pounds.

In light of these facts, it’s almost impossible to conclude that this presumably experienced hunter mistook 914f for a coyote. And yet that is precisely the conclusion reached by the FWS, an agency whose chief purpose is “to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.” Wolves, coyotes and humans are very different animals, but we are all predators. The fact that our own behavior as such is viewed any differently is not the result of humanity’s inherent uniqueness or superiority, but of accident, and we, as the benefactors of conditions and natural forces we personally had nothing to do with creating, get to say and do anything that we want to our fellow creatures and to the environment, no matter how unfounded, ridiculous and destructive.

Of course, Utah isn’t the only state in the West that has a controversial attitude toward wolves. In August of 2013 I did a two week writer’s residency in Centennial Valley, Montana. While there, I observed many animals, and I was often reminded of the danger posed by the moose and bear in the area, especially near the willows along Odell Creek, or in the heavy timber and higher elevations of Big and Little Sheep Mountains. But very little was said about Montana’s most controversial animal, the wolf.

One reason for this omission is that healthy wolves, contrary to their largely mythic reputation for being man hunters, rarely confront, attack, or kill humans. Another reason is that, except for occasional sightings of lone wolves or their tracks in the snow, there aren’t any wolves to talk about in Centennial Valley.

Based on my off-the-record conversations with an official from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, the Centennial pack had a good run, but in 2009 it was blamed for killing 120 sheep, most of them bucks, near the Blacktail area, south of Dillon, Montana, and that was the end of the Centennial wolf pack. The Sage Creek pack would meet a similar fate after being blamed for killing two dozen sheep at the mysterious USDA Sheep Experiment Station.

According the Montana Standard, “federal trappers,” aka members of the embattled USDA Wildlife Services Predator Control Program, moved in and destroyed the entire Centennial pack including several pups. Although the Montana Standard reported that the pack was eliminated in a matter of days, the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website indicated that the pack was destroyed between October 18 and late November of 2009. One-hundred-and-twenty (120) sheep. Somehow the words and the numbers don’t convey the reality. One hundred -and-twenty is this many:







That’s a lot of animals, and it doesn’t take a wildlife expert to see that the wolves could not possibly eat even a quarter of these sheep over the course of single feeding.

Although many of the sheep may have killed each other by trampling and suffocating one another, mass or “surplus” killings such as this often translate into the idea that wolves kill for the sake of killing, without reason, or simply for the fun of it. Losing sheep clearly affects a herder’s bottom line, but those of us who are unaware of or ignore the facts beyond the rancher’s bottom line probably are more disturbed by the apparent moral implications of the killings. They must wonder what kind of animal would take so much more than what it needs (and in turn leave fewer animals for us). But a quick review of world literature shows that people have throughout time devised all sorts of interesting, creative, and unrealistic ways of answering this question.

While some people tend to revere the wolf, e.g., Native Americans, here in the United States the predominant story of the wolf has been the Judeo-Christian one. What kind of animal would kill so much more than what it needs? A hell-sent animal, that’s what kind. Contrast that with how the sheep figures in the popular imagination: The sheep is white, cuddly, docile, defenseless, and—in a word—innocent; whereas the wolf is black, vicious, blood-thirsty, and—in a word—guilty (and we don’t usually count wolves to help us sleep). The novelist T.H. White deftly captured this duality in his book The Bestiary: “The eternal enemy of the lamb is of course the wolf, and the shift toward Christ the Lamb naturally led to the growing use of lupine imagery in satanic iconography.” But the problem isn’t just that the wolf kills, it’s what it kills and how much. Had those bucks been ewes or, even worse, lambs, people’s ire would have increased exponentially, despite the United States’ thriving, multi-billion dollar veal industry.

Wolf attacks on humans are rare, but the attacks that have occurred over the past three or four hundred years offer some insight into the Blacktail and Sage Creek sheep killings. Interestingly, the vast majority of wolf attack victims (the total number of which is very small) have been women and children. In his worldwide 2002 survey The fear of wolves: A review of wolf attacks on humans, John Linnell et. al. noted that while men were the main victims of rabid wolf attacks, “the victims of predatory attacks by wolves are mainly (90%) children under the age of 18, and especially under the age of 10. In rare incidents where adult humans are killed, they are almost always women.”

The wolf’s tendency to prey on women and children certainly reinforces its reputation for being an agent of the devil (compare how we punish people who prey on women and children). But an alternative, albeit more challenging perspective is that the wolf is demonstrating its resourcefulness by selecting prey—sheep, women, children—whose acquisition posed the least amount of energy expenditure and threat to its own well-being. The Blacktail sheep killings may appear to undermine this interpretation if only because the Centennial pack did not eat a fraction of the sheep it “killed.” One might ask, if wolves don’t eat what they kill, then why kill at all? This question could mean why morally or why biologically. Because the real wolf exists outside our concepts of morality, we can be assured that the moral answer to this question (i.e., that the wolf is a mindless killer) will have almost nothing to do with the actual animal and the reasons for its behavior. The biological answer is harder to come by, but it is unquestionably more reliable and useful in terms of increasing our understanding.

Both the moral and biological perspectives have one very important commonality: Neither occurs in a vacuum. This is not to say that these perspectives check-and-balance each other, nor that they share equal footing. For even though wildlife managers and field biologists are often in the best position to interpret the data and explain the needs of animals and why they behave in the ways that they do, as we saw with the outcome of 914f, they are still under considerable pressure to present their findings in such a way that does not invite the often unfounded or irrational objections of their constituents. This is assuming they even get to the point where they have findings to present. Sometimes the moral outcry is so loud, all claims to the contrary, that all appeals for circumspection, measure and restraint, are drowned out by its thunderous roar.

This is what appears to have happened with the Blacktail killings and, from I’ve gathered from my research, several other so-called “surplus” killings as well. Had the kill site of the Blacktail killings been treated with the thoroughness and care of a human crime scene, wolf biologists may have learned a lot more about the wolves, including whether or not they would, if left alone, return for later feedings. This knowledge would have added a whole new dimension to our understanding of surplus killing and in turn may have helped to debunk the ridiculous idea that wolves simply kill for the fun of it. But so fierce was the public outcry over the killing of these sheep, within hours of their discovery federal trappers were given the green light to begin exterminating the pack. Instead of waiting to see how the wolves would respond to the surplus, or examining the sheep to determine if they were in fact killed by wolves and not by each other and other animals, the Wildlife Services folks rushed in with traps, poison and guns a-blazing. The event could have been treated as an opportunity to improve our knowledge, but instead it became the unchecked justification for all-out war on the Centennial wolf pack.

Despite the break-neck speed with which these events unfolded, wildlife biologists dispatched to the scene were still able to verify that two adult wolves were involved in the killings. Because these two wolves were the only animals to be implicated, initially they were the only animals to be destroyed. That the motive for this extermination had precious little to do with the facts became clear when a vocal segment of the public complained that killing only two wolves—when 120 sheep had been slaughtered—was not a fair and adequate response, at which point the killing resumed until every member of the Centennial pack was dead.

As if doing good science weren’t difficult enough, local wildlife officials must also anticipate and contend with an uninformed and at times bewitched public, knowing that at any moment they themselves may be ridiculed, assailed or even ousted from their positions because of their findings. If the limited reporting in the Montana Standard and other local papers is any indication, there is much more to the wolf’s story, and I can’t help but wonder if the wolf narrative in general, and the concept of surplus killing in particular, aren’t just ploys designed to obscure that fact.

If we look at the behavior of the human species, we will see there is no reason to assume that the only reason animals kill other animals is to eat them. Sport and trophy hunters exemplify this practice insofar as they kill selected animals not for their meat, but for their hides, skins, pelts, antlers, horns, heads, and other body parts, the significance of which has no obvious bearing on the hunters’ survival. When examined from a strictly biological point of view, sport or trophy hunting seems aberrant when compared to the so-called surplus killing by wolves. Although it’s true that a percentage of hunters are considered subsistence hunters, the majority of hunters do not need to harvest animals for food. This is especially true in the case of trophy hunters, whose “canned” hunts can cost hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. With that kind of money, a hunter could eat champagne, lobster and caviar for a year. Hell, he could hire someone to go out and hunt his food for him. Of course there are other reasons for why people hunt other than for food, including our need to exercise primal urges and for the preservation of culture and tradition, but generally speaking, most of these folks do not kill for food in order to survive.

If one is tempted to draw the same conclusion with respect to the wolf, that killing multiple sheep is in excess of what they need to survive, one may need to broaden one’s definitions of what it means to “need” and to “survive.” Humans are well known for stockpiling food, and fortunately many of us don’t have to worry about our next meal. But wolves are not us. They are a feast-or-famine animal. Thus, similar to how my mother has a couple months of canned food and water in her pantry, surplus killing may just be the wolf’s way of ensuring a future food supply for both itself, its young and other pack members.

In addition to ensuring a steady supply of food, wolf biologists have also hypothesized that young, inexperienced wolves may benefit from watching their parents and pack members kill. Talk about a teaching moment! In light of these explanations, the very notion of surplus killing flies in the face of what we know about animal behavior, including our own. For what is the likelihood that any animal could get away with risking and wasting so much and still survive as well as the wolf? It takes an intelligent animal to see an opportunity and seize it, even if it means killing a lot of defenseless sheep.

For those of us who do not distinguish between human morality and biological amorality, this view is unsatisfactory at best. Equally untenable for a vocal segment of the public, however, is the idea that the wolf is the devil’s accomplice and should be wiped from the face of the Earth. We seem to be at an impasse. The irony is that it has very little to do with the wolf and very much to do with our own limitations. We humans are the masters of the double-standard. When we load our freezers with meat, that’s just good planning, but when the wolf does the same thing, it is slaughter and deviltry of the most heinous kind. The fact is that wolves and other animals do not behave for the sake of behaving, or kill for the sake of killing, any more than we do.

Maximilian Werner is the author of four books, including the natural history/memoir Evolved: Chronicles of a Pleistocene Mind and the memoir Gravity Hill. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2015.